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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, June 30, 2005

mostly numbers, and a few words

Kimmie told me that on JACK-FM this morning they confirmed that this has been the "darkest" June in recorded history, with just 149 hours of sunlight (at that time), compared with the previous record-holder, June 1953, which had 150-odd. It was pouring a warm rain as she left for the office.

JACK-FM is the radio station Kimmie listens to in the morning as she gets ready for work. This morning I was the one to switch the radio on--a cheap little Radio Shack job that sits on top of my upright chest of drawers. JACK's slogan is "we play what we want". This morning Kimmie and I paused to listen to "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)", and were taken suddenly back to our childhood years. We tried to remember who did the song ("the Cowsills?" I guessed; "No," said Kim, with a definite shake of her head), and when it came out. Kimmie remembered lying on her mother's bed listening to it in 1974. I knew it came out earlier, I thought maybe the late 1960s. Kimmie said definitely not. So I said it was not later than 1971, probably 1970. I just got the facts: the act was Edison Lighthouse, and the year was 1970.

After my morning notes (Rubicon, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ), I had my own office-work to go to: estate accounting at Mom's house. I drove out at 10:30, as she and Jackie (who had taken today off work) were preparing to go to a lunch date in Port Coquitlam. I sat at the dining-table and proceeded to enter bank-statement data into Quicken on Mom's laptop. I'll go through every transaction in order to get good data to plug into the master Excel workbook.

When Mom and Jackie had left, I worked on. I took a lunch break at about 12:30, then went to sit on one of the deep-rose loveseats by the picture window. I made some notes in my prose sketchbook:

Almost silent: faint cawing of crows outside; now the quiet reverberation of a boat engine; here in the living-room I hear only a tiny electric sound: maybe a clock running. From the kitchen: a single plop of a water-drop falling from the faucet. An isolated creak of a floorboard somewhere, and otherwise, just the high-frequency trill of my own ears.

So it is peaceful here: and peaceful outside. The great picture-window, at which I sit, looks out on the little lawn, hemmed in by a sloping laurel hedge, then a fringe of heterogeneous overgrown plants at the top of the bluff dropping to the high-tide water. Offshore a flock of Canada geese has landed by the bald crown of the tidal rock. They came in noisily, calling and flapping, paddling even as they hit the water, stirring it to foamy green. Now they swim placidly past the dock.

The old apple-tree reaches for light from the left side of the window, the green fruit hanging in clusters among its curling leaves. The flower-beds, irregular, one eye-shaped, the other a rough pentagon, each ringed by mossy rocks, have been cleared. The sun has come out in this dark June, bathing the 2 beds and half the lawn, creating a magic of trembling chiaroscuro in the apple-boughs.

Gentle ripples traverse the cove. Out in the channel there are swags of darker, smooth water, like open water amid ice-floes. But the floes are simply the silvery reflection of the cloud-massed sky, more a sky of April than of late June.

Somewhere in the distance a lawnmower nags.

I worked on in the silence until about 3:00, then packed up, locked up, and came home.

Novel-writing? Nope.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

books for free

A dry day, writing-wise. I still felt my mind jumbled, affected by the outside world. I did my morning notes as usual, first thing (Rubicon, From Eden to Exile), but I became distracted after that by linking on to a talk on digital rights management (DRM) given by Cory Doctorow in 2004, mentioned in today's post by the Grumpy Old Bookman.

As a "content creator", I've been keeping an eye on the subject off and on over the past few years. Usually I'm among those alarmists who feel that the freewheeling digitization of all information--including the created works of artists--will lead to even lower incomes for writers. (How much am I making off this blog? Guess.) The ability to share files instantly all over the world certainly seems to raise the question: Why pay for it if you don't have to?

Why indeed.

I noticed that in Doctorow's talk, although one section of it was entitled "DRM Systems Are Bad for Artists", he doesn't say too much about exactly how the artist benefits from the mass dissemination of free files. He mentions only the "compulsory license": the copyright innovation that had users of someone's, say, song pay a fixed fee to the publisher every time they made a piano roll for a player piano. Doctorow says that this system of compulsory licensing was adapted for each new change in technology: to recording, radio, television, and so on. His main point is that you can't hope to win by simply trying to deny the technology--you need to go with it.

I'm all for that. But a business model is still needed. And even though Doctorow says, sweepingly, that "compulsory license created a world where a thousand times more money was made by a thousand times more creators who made a thousand times more music that reached a thousand times more people", I think about the publishing business in, say, ancient Rome. There, booksellers would copy and sell books (all done by hand on papyrus scrolls) written by others. Bestsellers could earn them a lot of money, none of which ever went to the writer. I keep this in mind when enthusiasts make claims that the digital world will provide endless new earning opportunities for creators.

To me it's an economic question: what has value? If I value something--such as a written work--that means by definition I'm willing to pay something for it, whatever form it takes. The principle of fair exchange requires that I pay something for it, so that the seller and I are exchanging something we perceive to be of equal value. For various reasons, usually promotional, some "sellers" give stuff away for free--but no one can make a living on that. Otherwise, taking something for free, that its owner doesn't want to give me, is theft.

In 2000, the early days of Napster, Kimmie and I got into file downloading one night. Our house was recovering from a flood (pipe-burst under upstairs bathroom; lower 2 floors completely soaked), so we had brought the PC up from my office into the living-room. We learned how to download the files, and soon were listening to tracks like "Itchycoo Park" and "You Showed Me" and "How Do You Do" and "Classical Gas" and "Build Me Up Buttercup". What fun! But I felt a bit bad. Here I was downloading and enjoying created content for free. It's not that I would have rushed out to buy a copy of "Itchycoo Park"--assuming I could find one--but nonetheless, I valued the listening experience, which means that had I been required to pay for it, I would have--if the price were right.

Personally, I feel that promiscuous file-sharing is wrong, if the creator of the content is trying to earn his or her living from it. How do those downloaders feel about working for free? At the end of 2 weeks of flipping burgers, your check reads $0. Thanks, friend--keep flippin'!

Evidently Tor and some other publishers are offering digital versions of their books for free (I was only able to find sample chapters on their website). The business model can only be greater awareness = greater sales of paper books. Maybe that's OK some of the time, but not, I think, as a general model for a profitable business.

The real crunch won't come until there is digital format as pleasant to read as a paper book. My favorite format has always been the mass-market paperback (just as my favorite pen has always been a plain transparent ballpoint--formerly Bic, now Staedtler). Hardbacks are too unwieldy, and even trade paperbacks can be bothersome to manipulate. But a good mass-market paperback, now there's a book.

With this and various other things tugging at my mind, I could not get down to writing. I listened to heavy machinery rumbling out on the boulevard, talked with Mom, did some errands, ran in the muggy heat, and came down here to write this post. Now: on to cup of tea #2, and some reading, at last. A book!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

new jobs, new genres

While waiting for the cable guy to show up, I might as well start this post.

A call arrived for Robin at about 9:40. It was Joanne at the medical clinic in West Van, getting Robin out of bed to offer her a job. Last night's interview, which Robin felt had gone poorly, not so much because of her performance as because of its brevity, the seeming lack of strong engagement on the part of Joanne and the doctor conducting it, and Robin's lack of opportunity to draw attention to her strengths (organizational ability, love of kids, making the dean's list). Wrong. They want her and when can they have her? Robin padded down the stairs to my office to tell me. I leaned back, smiled, and congratulated her; I felt great for her, and forthwith invited her out to a celebratoy lunch--after the cable guy has come and gone.

I was off to a bumpy start trying to get back into drafting chapter 17. I also had to phone our strata's lawyer about the latest twist in the road in our ongoing dealings with one owner who won't respect our parking bylaws. I'll have to draft a letter on that. Kimmie also wanted me to respond to an e-mail that she'd sent me to see what I thought of a draft e-mail she was sending to a coworker who'd upset her. Meanwhile, on the boulevard that divides the north and south sides of Keith Road outside our house, a paving crew was at work with their rumbling, beeping machinery, laying asphalt on the winding strip they've built into the grass. The $7.1-million paving project goes by the name of the Green Necklace: an eventually continuous band of bikable, rollerskatable asphalt around the core of North Vancouver City. Goodbye grass. Goodbye money.

In short, I found my mind jostled by externals, and it was correspondingly hard to get into the writing flow. I nudged myself forward 2 pages.

But I wanted to say something about one of the Grumpy Old Bookman's posts today, about literary genres. I've brought up the topic myself in a previous post, and wanted to add further thoughts.

Woops--the cable guy showed, and, with some difficulty, did manage to install a cable outlet in Robin's room. (He assured me that the degradation of our cable signal would not be too bad! When I pressed him for clarity he said things like, "you won't notice it.") Then I took Robin out to lunch at Ricky's Diner in celebration of her new job. We both had the "everything" omelette. I dropped her at her old apartment, where she was meeting Trevor to do the final cleanup before carpet-cleaning tomorrow.

Had to draft that letter, now I'm back.

Where was I. GOB brings up the issue of literary fiction, for which perhaps there's no universally accepted definition (how about this: "noncommercial fiction that some publishers get excited enough about to publish"). Fiction offered as "literary" tends to be material that more or less self-consciously flouts one or more "conventions". In the case of Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days, which I've not read, it seems that the conventions are those of the "noir thriller" and science fiction. The author relies on the convention, but, supposedly, rises above it by breaking its "rules".

Maybe, sometimes, this can be OK. Usually it makes for a tedious read (I have to give props to GOB for his determination in reading all the way through a book he doesn't like--something I cannot do, except, maybe, for pay. Maybe.). Why? I believe it's because genre conventions are structurally stable: they exist because they have an inherent power with audiences (or readerships). In other words, the genre conventions contain the equivalent of releasing mechanisms for emotional energy in the audience; they speak to us in some deep way, triggering feelings. It's largely for this experience that we turn to stories in the first place. The genres exist because they've been proven to work.

That being said, a story that merely checks the boxes of a genre, like the great majority of books published as "category fiction", is, to me, boring. Romance, mystery, sci-fi--they're all yawners to me, for the most part. The releasing mechanism is not working on me, and, I suspect, on many others. Hence I'm not a consumer of category fiction, and I have no desire to write it.

The way forward, I think, is not merely to urinate on genre conventions, but to make creative use of them, not trashing them but bending them in ways dictated by one's own inner creative impulses. It should be controlled, minimal, and organic. Consider the movie western: a time-honored genre that in the old days featured chaste, virtuous gunslingers protecting defenseless townspeople and virtuous saloon girls from marauding outlaws. Fast-forward to 1991 and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, a story that rearranges these elements into an altogether different configuration--one that spoke to the audience of the 1990s. It wasn't a matter of flouting convention, but of creative bending of it to lead the audience to a new place, one that has even more emotional impact on them than the older, now stale convention.

Thus, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was a maturation or coming-of-age plot, but the type and quality of maturation that Joyce was depicting was not what the other practitioners of the genre had ever envisioned. It was fiction as literary as you could wish for, and also a powerfully told story that struck deeply into not just the reader's conceptual mind, but somewhere nearer his or her core.

So, yes, most fiction now presented as "literary" is, to me, a pretentious bore. But so is category fiction (minus the pretension). The way forward, in the sense of telling stories that will really make people feel things, think things, is, I believe, to use the genre conventions, but to use them creatively, questioningly, rather than slavishly. Our attraction to a particular genre shows that it's already speaking to us. As writers we need to find how to speak through it in turn--how to piggyback our deepest feelings and thoughts onto an already working vehicle, and in so doing, modify it to our needs.

As a reader this is what I want, and what I generally can't get.

Monday, June 27, 2005

the writer as account reconciler

Morning notes: Rubicon, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah.

A high white overcast has set in--reminds me of traveling in Europe in the late fall and winter. Sprinkles of rain have fallen throughout the day.

As I sat at the PC I heard Robin run downstairs and out the front door. I ran up to say goodbye to her as she stood at the bus stop just outside our door. I found out that she'd rescheduled her job interview for this evening at 7:15.

"How'd the exchange go?" I said, leaning over our porch rail.

"She was fine," said Robin. "I told her that 'you just said tomorrow',' and she said, 'Oh my god, you didn't go there?'"

"Now the worst case is that she'll want to get rid of any reminders of her incompetence," I said. "You'll have to go." I made a handgun out of my fingers and blew Robin away.

The bus pulled up and Robin climbed aboard.

I visited Mom in Deep Cove to work on the estate spreadsheet. We both racked our brains to figure out what might be wrong with it--and we're both very good at account reconciliation. There was nothing for it: I started going through all the bank statements back to the date of death of Harvey Burt (27 December 2003) to look at them line by line for electronic transfers and such. In the first few months there was a flurry of activity in his account as his many charitable contributions set up on automatic debit were bouncing, being charged to the account and then denied because the account had been frozen.

But Mom made me an excellent lunch of toasted ham-and-cheese sandwiches with mustard. Pushing the laptop aside on her heavy 1908 dining-table I munched contentedly, looking out across the little cove, where a group of kayakers was scattered like yellow pickup sticks on the metallic water.

I told Mom about Marian Toews' blog. In some ways Marian reminds me of Mom: they both have discovered that they like solitude, and feel comfortable living with their private thoughts. The solitary woman is an unconventional figure, more so than the solitary man, and evokes deep-seated feelings that have a numinous, spiritual tone.

There's more work to do on the estate workbook. Lots more work. An unknown amount of work.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sunday decompression

Morning keying of notes over coffee: Rubicon, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah.

I looked at some blogs, and, via Debra Young's fantasist, started reading My Thoughts by Marian Toews, and was immediately drawn in. This is the kind of thing I was hoping to find when I started reading blogs, indeed the kind of thing I was hoping to do: an intimate opening-up of one's experience. Again and again I felt I was reading someone's vivid, fresh experience and thoughts, not a rehash of conventional thoughts and feelings. What an unusual life--she says that she was a prostitute in Vancouver for 11 years. Now she's solitary and loving it. She's observant, insightful, and articulate. Take a look.

And me? After the flurry of activity getting Robin moved in, a day of relative decompression. Kimmie made poached eggs for breakfast and we ate it en famille for the first time in years. Robin had what she thought was a job interview at a new medical clinic opening in West Vancouver. We decided to make a family outing of it and I drove us there. It turned out that there had been confusion in the setting of the appointment, with the woman telling Robin to arrive "tomorrow", which evidently meant Monday. The place was locked in its new green-glassed building at 17th and Marine Drive.

The women made me stop at Old Navy in Park Royal so they could shop for T-shirts. I trailed after them, saying yes or no to the colors they pointed at (my eye for color is better than theirs). While they stood in the long checkout queue I stood outside on the sidewalk in the muggy shadowless air in my jean-jacket, shorts, and running-shoes, playing Scrabble on my Palm.

When we got home Kimmie decided she didn't want her T-shirts after all; the colors didn't quite appeal to her.

"I'll take them back," she said as we stood munching tortilla chips together at the kitchen counter, dipping them in the leftover salsa she'd made on Friday night.

"What--today?" I said.


"If I bought T-shirts and took them back on the same day, I'd feel that my life was a miserable, wretched waste of time," I said mildly.

"You're not me," Kimmie said, "and I'm not you."

I didn't want to deny that, so we simply stood there crunching our chips, Kimmie dodging the bits of raw onion until there was almost nothing else left in the bowl, at which point she abandoned it to me.

Will your magnum opus move forward tomorrow, Paul? No. Tomorrow I'll be working on the estate spreadsheet with my mother.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

household changes; project optimism

It's done: Robin is moved in. While Kimmie and I headed out to the IHOP in New West, and then to Ikea in Coquitlam to buy another Billy shelving unit, this time for her sewing-room, Robin's desk and chest of drawers were loaded into a truck by a couple of movers that Trevor knows. They were just getting the desk in the front door as we arrived back home.

Kim and I focused on getting stuff out of the house: we took two carloads down to the Salvation Army store, where vehicles were jammed in the lane at the back, unloading unwanted chattels on the harried volunteers (or maybe they're employees--the Sally Ann store charges enough for their old junk now). We finally parted with the bicycles we bought in 1990, my blue 5-speed and Kimmie's red 6-speed. Kimmie has just reorganized the little unfinished basement space we still call the small storage room; it's looking clean and spacious without the old bikes hanging from ceiling-hooks.

Robin, moving at her characteristic pace of a placid millpond, puts things away in her still-crammed reclaimed bedroom, still painted the cheerful yellow Kimmie put on the walls when Robin moved out 2 years ago.

Over our omelettes, hash browns, and, in my case, side of pancakes (all very good--and I didn't finish mine) this morning, I talked to Kimmie about my recent findings about the publishing industry (in large part due to the educating influence of the Grumpy Old Bookman).

"It might be depressing," I said, cutting energetically at the cheese, bacon, and mushrooms of my omelette, "but I like to know what's happening in an industry. I like business--even if I'm on the getting-shafted end. I'm not one of those starry-eyed, impractical artists."

I related GOB's description of how supermarkets and other big retailers are putting pressure on publishers to offer them more for less, which pressure will inevitably be passed on to the weakest link in the bookmaking chain--the writer. What else is new? Artists were born to suffer--it's part of our mystique. (I always appreciate the scene in Sunset Boulevard in which William Holden's writer character, catching up with his agent on the golf course, begs him for some money, only to be told that writers do their best work under pressure--"and please get out of my light for this putt.")

"I like thinking about how I'll market my book," I said. "It has some strong elements. Sure, it's massive--"

"But that's a good thing," said Kimmie. "I like to get lost in a book."

"Right--if you're enjoying it, you don't want it to end," I said. "And the birth of Christianity angle has appeal. Maybe not for Bible-thumpers--not my unorthodox treatment--but for the many others who are interested and curious about that time."

"Yeah, and who don't want to read piles of books," said Kimmie, "or go to university just to find that stuff out."

"Right. Plus, it's conceived as a series. Harry Potter might have done great as a one-off, but the fact that it's a series gives it extra power. It can keep bringing new people in."

I may not be a high-profile author like Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton, but I believe I don't have to sink into the quicksand of the mid-list. My project will be able to generate "heat."

Whatever fate awaits me, I feel driven to do this, so do it I will. If that means no sales, big sales, or some other strange twist, I will do it anyway. The gods will decide what's to become of it and of me.

Friday, June 24, 2005

hare envy

I wasn't going to do a post--thought, "Aw, to hell with it." I helped Kimmie and Robin ferry a few boxes and shelves from their cars up to Robin's bedroom and bathroom, then, when they went to get more, I made myself tea and read Rubicon.

But after finishing my tea I felt a bit bad: a certain sense of responsibility to my readers, few as they may be. What can I tell you?

Thick, rain-bearing clouds have again moved in, blotting out the morning sunshine. I spent my writing time working on the estate spreadsheet, solving a couple of problems and arriving at what I think is the final problem: an outstanding difference of $400.71. When we track that down, the spreadsheet will cinch into balance and the great task of data entry and calculation will be all but done.

But I felt an underlying guilt, because I secretly wanted to avoid my project. It's as though I can't bear to open it up and witness my own slowness. As though the tortoise, disgusted with his pace, takes a break so he doesn't have to watch the lumbering movements of his own legs. He starts acting like the hare. I think that's me.

This is not a mature approach. Projects don't get completed through inaction. Guilt and anxiety start to build, feelings of helplessness. Maybe it's a kind of fatigue: I'm tired of it. Even my research is slowing up. The zeal I felt a couple-three months ago is largely gone; now there's something dogged about it. It feels like it's taking forever to read Rubicon, even though I really like the book. It proceeds with a dreamlike slow-motion quality.

I'm plodding. Or rather, I've taken a break from plodding, which means I'm at a dead stop. I'm 34% of the way through my draft. If I were crossing the Pacific Ocean in a kayak, this would mean that I'm about 3,700 miles out. A new kind of gumption is called for here. What am I made of?

The hare at least gets the feeling of speed and progress, sometimes.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

stranger in a strange land

Summer returns: the garden plants glow pale green in the direct rays of the sun. A butterfly flops wildly among them.

Another day of no writing--not even morning notes, since I spent my coffee-time writing down a dream I'd had. I took half a Sleep Aid last night, and as often happens the drug provoked vivid dreams. What the heck, maybe I'll just transcribe it here: a trip even deeper into the mind of the writer:

Walking with Warren along Columbia Street, south toward Pender. We’re wearing dark suits, and he’s in a dark trenchcoat. It’s Sunday and we’re about to attend a Jewish class at a yeshiva on Pender. We may walk arm in arm, crossing Pender Street amid the smells and run-down awfulness of the Downtown East Side-will we be accosted by crooks or drug dealers before we get to our destination? There are also piles of gravel and other signs of construction on Pender, especially to the west, toward downtown.

But we head east, into Chinatown, where the Jewish center is (something like the Chinese community center in that area). It’s in an old building with its door right on the narrow sidewalk. With some trepidation we head in-will we be accepted, since we’re not Jewish?

Inside the door Jewish kids are playing, running around, having fun before they have to knuckle down and go to class. They’re all in respectful dark clothes, and all the boys (they’re almost all boys) are wearing yarmulkes. I see that Warren too is wearing one, and am suddenly gripped with alarm that I don’t have one. How could I have overlooked this? And why would Warren have a yarmulke? I think he must have attended Jewish funerals long ago, maybe when he was a kid, and he still has this.

All I have is a yellow-and-black check scarf. I suppose I can somehow put this over my head, but I don’t think there’s any way of doing so without looking like a woman. I’m afraid of making myself stick out this way when I’m trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. It’s probably too much to hope that they have some spare yarmulkes for cases like me--no one here would forget his. I handle the scarf nervously.

I wonder where the class will be--we’ll be studying orthodox Jewish teachings, maybe kabbalism. There is a corridor running down the old building, and, I see, large open stairs leading down to a well-lit basement floor, like a mall. Dark-dressed Jews are going here and there, solemnly, with purpose.

A little Jewish girl, smiling and friendly, dressed more brightly than the boys, says hello and tells me where the class will be. I feel a little more at home--they do accept outsiders here.

I reflect on how alien this environment is, and yet they’re human beings just like me. I think about being among actual aliens, extraterrestrials, all the civilizations that may exist in the universe, and what it would be like to be among them. I shudder to think of it, how utterly alone I would be. And yet they are sentient beings, like me; I could get used to it--wouldn’t it be better than being alone on a lifeless planet? Yes, this bustling Jewish center could be a spaceport on another planet. I’ll wear a headscarf like a woman and perhaps be laughed at, but they won’t turn me away.

When I write down dreams I also, if I have time, attempt an interpretation. I take the dream as I've written it and go at it phrase by phrase, teasing out meaning in various ways, mainly by using the Jungian technique called amplification, in which each element is restated in objective terms, like a dictionary definition. The first bit of my interpretation I did thus:

Walking with Warren: a friend and partner, one who knows me best. We have created together. If he’s a shadow-figure, then he’s a friendly and accessible aspect of the shadow.

along Columbia Street: Downtown East Side, run-down, dangerous, depressing. Hookers, addicts, drug-dealers. Why Columbia? I know it best: have used it as a corridor home from Mom’s place in False Creek. In this block, between Hastings and Pender, I used to go to the Green Door, a favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. Chinatown. (Parapraxis: I typed "Greed Door" instead of "Green Door" just now.) A place of derelicts, crooks, losers.

And so on. I didn't finish.

I wanted to write it down because I've never had a dream like it before. It reminded me of when I was in Jerusalem in 1981. A fellow guest at the rooming-house where I was staying, Ira from Staten Island, felt almost persecuted when he went out because someone at a yeshiva was trying to recruit him to take classes. Ira would skulk through the streets of the Old City, trying to stay under the radar of the yeshiva press gang. I found it funny.

When I told Effi, a local girl I went out with a couple of times, that I was interested in the Jewish spiritual teachings, she suggested that I should go to a yeshiva.

"What, they'd take me? A gentile?"

"Yes! They'd love to have you."

I never went. I didn't want to convert, but mainly I wasn't planning to stay that long.

The dream seems to be suggesting that in going into my project, my research into the deep past of Christianity and its roots, will change my sense of identity. My work has a lot to do with the theme of identity. I'm a stranger in a strange land.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

detour to spreadsheet

The weather has snapped back to cool and wet: we've enjoyed the 1 day as the hole in the Pacific weather rode over our city.

I had just sat down to resume work on chapter 17 when Mom called. She had just talked with the estate lawyer, who had expressed "surprise" that she hadn't sent out a partial distribution to the legatees yet. (He has given many contradictory instructions over the past couple of years, forgetting many and denying others.) So she asked me to help get the final reckoning of the estate together. I went over to her house and got to work on her repaired Dell laptop.

Mom bought me a tuna-salad sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup up at the Lazy Boy Cafe in the Parkgate shopping center. We talked about family issues as we ate at the beaten-up wooden table looking out on the parking lot.

As I drove us back downhill for our afternoon session, I said, "I don't think I'm like other writers."

"No, you're not."

"I don't think the same way, I don't work the same way."

"I'm sure that's true," she said. "But your blog is giving me an idea of what goes into your work."

I did what I could with the workbook; I'll have to continue tomorrow. Hurried home, got some cash. Kimmie's giving blood after work. I'll order a pizza so she can replenish her vital energies.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

fiction vs. nonfiction

The sound of sporadic hammering reverberates from next door where workmen are replacing some eavestroughs. The cloud cover slowly thickens, muting the light and diffusing the shadows. Thundershowers are forecast. I'm sweaty from a run through the neighborhood, haven't changed out of my chopped dusty-violet T-shirt and navy athletic shorts. I've just washed the dishes and the kitchen floor; now it's time for a blog post.

Feeling more inspired, I opened up chapter 17 and its corresponding notes document. I spent all my time on notes--again. I have lots of material but only a hazy idea of the structure of my scene. I find myself asking myself from time to time: Why am I writing fiction, again?

It's not a rhetorical question. I feel conflicted as a fiction-writer. As a kid I never doubted its value: I loved novels and was always reading them. From the age of about 12 I knew I wanted to write them. I have had a lot of pleasure, and even some transformative experiences, reading fiction.

But some years ago, I think in the early 1990s, I started going off them. The last novel I can remember reading (as opposed to rereading) with genuine enjoyment was The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy in 1992. I was surprised and delighted at how much the characters thought and felt as I thought and felt--they weren't alien Victorian people whose mindset was foreign to mine, but people like myself, living in a different time.

That same year I read another book I enjoyed very much, Laughing in the Hills by Bill Barich. It's an account of a season of horseracing at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I come from racing stock--some of my mother's brothers are trainers and more are bettors; my mother and her sister spend every Saturday at Hastings Park here in Vancouver. I've been myself quite a few times; I even tried to write a handicapping program for the old Hewlett-Packard computer in my high school. So I was in a position to appreciate Barich's pilgrimage (he spent the season there in memory of his recently deceased mother, who had developed a passion for betting at the end of her life).

But my appreciation for his book went far beyond the incidental fact of a shared interest in horseracing. His writing is excellent, but even as I was reading it I wondered to myself, "where exactly does the excellence reside here?" It was a memoir, a work of nonfiction, and it was better than any novel. Why?

I summarized it with the word richness. I don't have a copy of the book (I'd borrowed it from Mom), so I can't provide examples, but as I read the book I was conscious of how all the details of description, characterization, and dialogue felt, smelled, as though they had been plucked from the richness of the environment he was in. Each detail suggested the vastness and intricacy of the world that produced it.

I imagined trying to write fiction that could evoke this sense of richness, of reality, and I thought, "I can't." I recognized that I do not have the inventive ability--although my inventive ability is very good. The reason, finally, is that my imagination is not as rich a place as the universe in which it exists.

Ouch. Of course, the very best fiction-writers are able to evoke this sense of richness: I think of James Joyce, Thomas Mann. Another writer who excels at generating this type of richness, in a different way, is Thomas Pynchon.

After reading Laughing in the Hills, I began to compare the prose in novels with Barich's along the dimension of richness. With few exceptions, they come nowhere near it. Not for me, anyway. The fiction-writer, continually serving up stuff from the tap of his or her imagination, is putting imagery onto the blank sheet of the page, while the nonfiction-writer is culling imagery from the inexhaustible abundance of the world. Too often the result is predicability: flat, unconvincing description and simple, unlifelike characters.

Creating richness ex nihilo, from one's imagination, is real work. Bill Barich can briefly describe a couple fighting in an adjacent motel room and conjure a whole world, a whole society; the fiction-writer is hard pressed to spin off worlds with a shake of the wrist, so to speak, paragraph after paragraph, page after page.

My goal is to write with that level of richness--nonfictional richness. I want to believe the novel can still cut it as an art form, that it can provide reading as good as the highest-quality nonfiction. I'm taking my stab at it. Hence I remain quagmired in my notes. In my desire to dish up a surprise with every sentence, I build worlds like film sets that may be seen only glancingly as the characters walk through.

Monday, June 20, 2005

freedom and resistance

Just in the nick, summer arrives: cloudless sky, hot sun. According to our Western Canada Wilderness Committee calendar hanging in the kitchen, the solstice itself occurs at 10:22 tonight. Checking that against my American Ephemeris for the 21st Century: 2001 to 2050 at Midnight, I see that it's correct. At that moment the sun will reach the northernmost point in the sky in its yearly round, directly over the Tropic of Cancer, and will at the same time enter the astrological sign of the same name. Goodbye, Gemini.

I keyed notes this morning from Rubicon and From Eden to Exile, but after sending Kimmie off to work in the sunshine (feeling cheerful because wearing a new outfit that we got for her yesterday: black capris with white piping and a white cotton suit-style jacket with collar and lapels), I found myself undermotivated. I was happy to get an e-mail from Warren, which I read a couple of times: he was responding to having read chapter 15-16, and also to my Thursday e-mail complaining of faltering ganas for my project.

His cure: discuss thematic aspects of the work. I'm not sure whether he really is so enthusiastic about theme, or whether he simply knows I respond to this topic, but either way I enjoy it.

(Woops--just welcomed Kimmie home. She's upset about a run-in with a coworker today, so we talked about that awhile.)

Warren thinks that by introducing Julius Caesar as a character I am automatically raising the issue of fate or destiny, and he is no doubt right. He actually took the trouble of scanning through Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, as well as looking at material he's just read in Hillman's The Soul's Code, and the story of Er at the end of Plato's Republic. (The story of Er, an experiencer of what we would now call a near-death experience, also crops up in my own chapter 1.)

My meta-project, The Age of Pisces, automatically raises the question of fate or destiny, since this question is central to astrology. How fated are we? How free? The question is as poignant now as ever, with mechanistic science seeming to account for more and more of our experience in terms of brain physiology and chemistry. At the time of my story, 48 BC, this question was also hot, since astrological fatalism was sweeping the world. The question gnawed at them as it gnaws at us, and the people of that time adopted the same stances we adopt today: fatalism, freedom, or something in between.

It makes a huge difference whether we regard each other as autonomous, free individuals, or as machines driven by inexorable physical law. In my view, the fertility and relevance of this thematic question underlies the popularity of stories about robots. Movies like Terminator and Terminator 2 are, at bottom, tackling the question: What does it mean to be human?

Machines, including computers, are deterministic devices: a particular input will always lead to the same output. They are not free. That's what makes them useful. If a machine can be made indistinguishable from a human, what does that say about our freedom? According to Erich Fromm and Eric Hoffer, most people find freedom to be an irksome, oppressive burden. Another fascinating curve in the topic: we don't want freedom.

This topic is deep. I'm happy that Warren sees it as key to what I'm writing.

My writing day? A fizzle. I got on the phone and talked with my Mom for an hour or two. I'm resisting my book--successfully, it appears.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

books, Father's Day

Might as well start a post between my semi-activities.

Today is Father's Day in those parts of the world that celebrate it. "Happy Father's Day," said Kimmie as we lolled in bed at 7 o'clock. I'm not a father, however.

"I celebrated Stepfather's Day on Friday," I said, meaning that that's when I took Robin to lunch.

Kimmie understood right away and giggled.

I rose to discover that there had been more traffic to my blog, notably from Jacqui Lofthouse, an actual historical novelist. For a writer, nothing beats the feeling that one is being read--not even the feeling that one is being paid.

I checked her blog and enjoyed the little inventory of books in one's life that Amanda Mann first used in her blog. I'd like to play too:

Number of books owned:
Nonfiction: 860
Fiction: 165
(Actual numbers may be slightly higher, due to books that have escaped inventorying.)

Last book bought: The History of Technology, volume 2, edited by Charles Singer et al.

Last book read: Rubicon by Tom Holland

Last book finished: Hillel the Elder by Nahum Glatzer

Five books that mean a lot:

- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
- The Masks of God, especially volume 4, Creative Mythology by Joseph Campbell
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and, I don't know, how about...
- The Astrological Neptune by Liz Greene

I had to update my Book Inventory workbook in Excel to get it to total the books,something I'd never bothered to do (only the total dollar figure, for insurance purposes).

Kimmie and I went out for breakfast to Denny's, a local family-style restaurant on Marine Drive near the entrance to the Lions Gate Bridge. We'd never been there before. The place was jammed; we had to wait for 20 minutes to get a table. When we asked the bus-girl whether it was always this busy, she said it was only her second day on the job, but that it was after all Father's Day.

Ah yes, Father's Day. I did send Dad an e-mail, briefly referring to Father's Day. (I suspect that it's one of those synthetic holidays invented by Hallmark Cards.) Do fathers really have a preference for queuing up at Denny's every mid-June with their families, so they can tuck in to some pancakes and sausages?

A stop at Capilano Mall for sundry things, and now helping Kimmie sort and move furnishings from the upstairs bedroom to the new bunker sewing-room. It's sounding very quiet in there. I'll go see what she's up to.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

diverted by blog

Usual morning notes: Rubicon, Alexander the Great.

Kimmie was beavering away making the chocolate cake for her sister Susie's 50th wedding-anniversary barbecue this afternoon. A trained cake decorator, she was piping ornamental chocolate squiggles on the outside of the massive cylindrical cake, already thickly iced with chocolate. She made her own cake-plates by wrapping cardboard discs in gold foil.

Meanwhile, I'd digressed by reading an absorbing blog, Confessions of an Author by "Amanda Mann" (a pseudonym). Excellent! This is what the writing world needs more of: honest (I hope and trust) reportage of the life of the published author. "Amanda" seems to suggest, through her Bridget Jones-esque suffering, that being a published author is not so different from being an unpublished one: a via crucis of self-doubt, self-abasement, and self-flagellation. (She refers to herself as a "D-list author".)

Not that all published authors' experiences are anywhere near the same, I'm sure. Even the successful have their problems (Jeffrey Archer--criminal conviction; Salman Rushdie--contract hit taken out on him by theocratic regime; J. D. Salinger--fingered for child molestation in kiss-and-tell memoir; etc.). In fact, everyone has his or her problems.

In the world of television, I've been very successful by most people's standards--not financially, but creatively, by putting my own series on the air in substantially the form that I envisioned it. The show (The Odyssey) was widely watched and is watched to this day in places like Spain and Russia, and I'm sure elsewhere.

But neither I nor my writing partner Warren Easton really fit in with the TV world. Our minds did not think like the minds of those around us. People have different ways of dealing with the intense competition, stress, and inhuman working conditions of the industry, and not all of those are healthy. I never felt I belonged. I didn't want to belong. I remember seeing a documentary featuring James L. Brooks, writer-producer of hit TV shows and movies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Broadcast News, andThe Simpsons. He said that he thought that the writer is always alienated from the production, is always an outsider to it. If he's an outsider, then I feel I'm in OK company (if you can have a company of outsiders--maybe like Monty Python's hermits' conclave).

Another interesting observation comes from Roger Penrose, the mathematical-physical genius behind the string theory of fundamental particles and the physics of black holes (one excellent book: The Emperor's New Mind). He said that as he went through school, he thought that as he progressed further into areas that interested him--mathematics--he would associate with people whose minds were more and more like his own. But he found the opposite: as he went deeper into advanced math, he found that his colleagues thought less and less like he did--so much so that he wondered that they were even able to communicate with each other.

All this by way of saying that our individual experiences are unique. But I really do appreciate "Amanda's" reports of her authorial life, even if I don't want to imitate it, exactly.


Friday, June 17, 2005

lunch on a rainy Friday

Muggy; rain falls in torrential bursts.

Today I felt more positive again about my project. What after all are my choices? Can I abandon it now? Of course, I could--but it's not likely that better feelings lie on the far side of that decision. Rather, there would come the day when I look through my book and think, "Gee, this was pretty good. I should finish it." Then I'd press on again, only with 3 more years on my odometer. Might as well get on with it.

After my morning notes (Rubicon, Origins of Scientific Thought), I got back to chapter 17. My astronomer's assistant character, Lynceus, comes to the door, and soon I have a character on my hands. As I grope for ways for him to express himself, I suddenly think of whom to model him after, and suddenly he comes to life--forcefully, like a horse willfully going his own way. I'm happy for a character to show up like this, but he's supposed to be a minor character, and this guy is now bucking for more page and story real estate. Hm, maybe I should make him into Sosigenes. Or...? I'm not used to being pushed around by characters--it's partly fun, partly upsetting. It's great to have someone who comes across as a human being, but it's inconvenient to have to rearrange my work to accommodate him.

I got 3 pages written. I was a little pressed for time (which makes me more productive) because I had a lunch date with my stepdaughter Robin. I picked her up just after noon and drove us out through heavy monsoon-style rain to Deep Cove, so we could eat at Honey's Donuts (her choice--she'd never been). The little place was bustling; people still sat on the sidewalk under the awning with rain splattering down nearby, holding out crumbs for little wet sparrows.

Robin and I had to climb on wooden stools at the counter set against the front window. I had a chicken-salad sandwich with today's cream-corn soup; Robin had tuna salad.

"Kimmie told me that you were nervous about having lunch with me," I said.

"Well, she said that you wanted to talk to me," said Robin with a smile, "so..."

"But didn't I originally invite you out to lunch before you told us Trev was moving out?'

"Yes, exactly, that's what I said."

"Well," I said, "I can't tell you what to do, how to run your life, what decisions to make. It's not my role anymore, if it ever was. But I do want to be able to say what I think and feel."


"I think it's a good thing that you're moving back."

Why did I think that? Because I felt that it would give Robin a chance to move closer to her goals: getting out of debt, getting a job she likes, and planning to buy a place of her own, which is important to her.

"If you're going to be with someone, it's important that they have the same goals as you. Otherwise, it's just not going to work. I don't think Trevor has the same goals you do."

Robin took it in, listening. We moved on to other things. I didn't want to say too much--just express my views. It was friendly and easygoing--nothing to be nervous about, I hope.

We dropped in on Mom on the way back, since Robin has not seen the house since it was renovated last year. It's a beautiful place, with rain dripping from the leaves of the old apple tree and ripples moving diagonally across the deep murky green of the cove. We chatted in the livingroom by the big picture-window, appreciating the absence of traffic noise. Talked about my blog a bit (have just sent the link to Robin now). Mom had duly checked out the Grumpy Old Bookman, who was good enough to mention my blog in today's post.

Then we left.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

the wrong time for marketing

Overcast, thinking about rain but not actually precipitating. The most sunless June I can remember.

I read research books as usual yesterday afternoon: Rubicon, Origins of Scientific Thought, From Eden to Exile. This morning I keyed from the same books, having arisen with difficulty after lying awake from 3:10 to 5:00 or so. (Kimmie's alarm goes off at 5:30.)

I pushed at writing more of chapter 17, but found myself resisting. I wrote 2 pages--not terrible, but an underperformance considering my state of readiness, notewise. Sometimes it feels like a mechanical chore, and it's hard to believe that anything creatively worthwhile can come of it. I took a break to draft an e-mail to Warren in Chicago.

I think I've been corrupted by reading sites devoted to writing and publishing, with the inevitable splash of cold water about the difficulty of getting a) represented, b) published, c) promoted, d) bought. I've already talked about "odds" in a previous post, but I'm not immune to the negative influence of incessant warnings.

In fact, my own experience with agent-hunting has been relatively good. When I was still in my mid-20s I got several agents interested in looking at an adventure novel I had written (they all passed on it). Of course when I was doing The Odyssey it was easy to get an agent, since the show was already greenlighted for production. In 1994 I succeeded in acquiring a different agent, a partner in a prestigious London agency, for a New Age historical novel I'd written. But after a brief association with me she disappeared from the agency under mysterious circumstances--ones that I never learned the details of. So much for that relationship.

It's been a mixed trick. My overall feeling now is that it's important to find the right fit with an agent. I have no idea how, since it's hard to get any agent's attention. My deep feeling is that when it comes to publication (or anything else), it's not really a long-shot, but rather one of 2 possibilities: inevitable, or impossible. Of course, you never really know which you are, unless you happen to make it. The sprinkling of inevitables in a sea of impossibles gives the appearance of long odds.

I'm not at the right stage of my project to be thinking marketing thoughts. It's easy to kick a project while it's down, that is, while it's incomplete. It's all the easier for the creator to kick it. I hear that Edvard Munch used to spank his paintings. I can well understand it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Starry Night and birth

Kimmie toiled like an ant, ferrying furnishings, patterns, and fabric down to her new sewing-room (I helped move the cutting-table and arrange the furniture once it was inside the "bunker"), while I read The Origins of Scientific Thought and Rubicon.

It was back to Origins for me because de Santillana is still the best source (in my library anyway) for insight into not only ancient astronomy, but the underlying attitudes and principles, as well as the conflicts between rival theories. I felt myself getting closer to critical mass with chapter 17, but still not quite there.

Today, near the end of my writing session, I finally decided to plunge in and start writing. I wrote 80 words--a single paragraph to get the damn thing going.

My last step of preparation was to open Starry Night, the astronomical software I bought 2 years ago, and direct it to take me to Alexandria, 2 October 48 BC. It's fantastic: the program opens with an image of the sky here in Vancouver at the current date and time. I have daylight mode switched on, so it shows blue sky with a few puffy clouds. When I input the place I want to go to, my monitor became the window of a spacecraft as I flew about 1,000 km above the earth, the atmosphere giving way to the clean black of space and its countless stars--all in their correct positions and brightness. I saw North America swing below me, the Atlantic Ocean, the Iberian peninsula, and then I crossed the terminator as North Africa came into view along the broad curve of earth's surface. When I arrived over Alexandria, Egypt, the descent started, and I watched the stars shift in perspective as I dropped to the surface, with the silhouettes of trees on the black ring of the horizon. It was 9:07 p.m. local time.

Next I input my target date. The stars and planets rearranged themselves as the program catapulted me 2,000 years back in time. Now I was standing in Alexandria, looking at the night sky that someone at that time saw when he looked up. Crucial, I felt, since I was about to enter an ancient observatory to meet with one of the great astronomers of that period.

My feeling of inspiration, even of awe, provided me with the impetus to start my chapter:

Slaves carried torches to light their way. The moon, just five days old, was a thin crescent sinking in the Milky Way which rose like a pale column of smoke from the docks to the zenith.

The birth of a new chapter.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Afternoon reading: Rubicon, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, and From Eden to Exile.

Robin and Trevor stopped by last night; Trevor helped me move Kimmie's sewing machine and serger downstairs to the new sewing-room.

On Sunday I explored a bit further into the literary blogoverse, traveling via Grumpy Old Bookman (good reading) to a blog by Maud Newton. Her topic was "Ending Trouble", in which she mentions her dissatisfaction with the last quarter of most novels, and quotes James Wood in the Guardian on the same subject.

I agree (in my case, I also usually don't like the first three quarters either). The observation is not new; I remember reading E. M. Forster's discussion of it in Aspects of the Novel, published in 1927. The chapter or heading was "Worse Toward the End". I forget what his take on it was.

My own thought is this: the quality of the ending of a story--including a novel-length story--reveals the writer's command of storytelling. A story is about its ending; if you don't have an ending, you don't have a story.

In this I'm influenced by Robert McKee. He says that story design follows the age-old rule for dramatic presentations in general: save the best for last. Even James Joyce was trying to follow this rule by ending Ulysses with Molly Bloom's monologue. If a novel simply peters out, or suffers from a contrived, added-on ending, it's a sign that the writer did not know what his or her story was about. The novel was underworked, or the writer underskilled.

In my opinion there's a further problem: the 20th century saw the denigration of storytelling in the name of artistic fashions such as modernism, postmodernism, and so on. Forster, in the above-mentioned Aspects of the Novel, refers to story as the most primitive element of the novel--the thing that held the attention of shock-headed troglodytes gaping around the campfire. Regrettably, in his view, it must be there, but the novelist shouldn't soil his hands with it any more than necessary.

Joyce too, by the time Finnegans Wake rolled around, was fed up with the "go-ahead plot" and wanted to do something different. (He did--but when's the last time you read Finnegans Wake?) I remember reading things by writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Lawrence Durrell, Vladimir Nabokov, and many others who ripped up time and space to escape the drudgery of storytelling. One of France's New Wave filmmakers (probably Jean-Luc Godard) is reputed to have said, "A story should have a beginning, middle, and end--but not necessarily in that order." Clever--but is it good writing advice?

I think not. When I was younger I appreciated artsy, intellectual movies (and to a lesser extent novels), but now that I'm older I appreciate a good story, well told. When I was 20 I was mesmerized by watching Luchino Visconti's film version of Death in Venice. I still like that movie, but I think its achievement is much less than, say, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. (Now there's an ending.)

In my opinion, the best stories of the past few decades are to be found in movies, because screenwriters are trained in storytelling. Novelists, by and large, aren't--and it shows. They tend to trust in talent and intuition, with mixed results. When I hear a novelist say that he or she doesn't know how to end a story, I hear a lost soul--one who hasn't begun to think about what his or her story means.

The best novels have strong endings. When I finished reading Crime and Punishment when I was 13, lying in bed down in my basement room, I remember having a deep, stirring feeling--a new feeling: something I'd never felt before. The ending gave a powerful new twist to a powerful story. Tears came to my eyes, and I marveled at the ability of a book, a printed thing, to evoke this response in me. How did he do it?

Likewise, when I first read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I was 18 and it was a life-changing experience. The ending of that book too I found uniquely powerful and appropriate. It didn't involve surprise plot-twists or boy-getting-girl; it created the feeling of the launching of a freed soul into the sky of new possibilities, the joy of one who has burst the chains and is flying to his true life.

McKee estimates that of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75% or more of the writer's labor should go into designing the story. Of that 75%, 75% again should go into the climax (the ending). There it is: 9/16 of a writer's total effort should go into the ending of a story. Over half. How many writers put even 10% of that amount of effort into it?

I spent a year, maybe more, outlining my novel. I hope the effort was enough, and of the right type. I couldn't think of any way to improve it further. Now I'm committed.


Monday, June 13, 2005

mainly nonwriting days

Afternoon reading: Rubicon, Hillel the Elder, Alexander the Great.

Morning notes: Rubicon, Hillel the Elder.

A couple of (mainly) nonwriting days. Yesterday I became embroiled in more furniture-assembly when a cubbyhole shelving unit and an upright chest of drawers arrived from Ikea. Kimmie and I labored in the windowless basement box where her sewing-room will be when Robin returns home to live. Kimmie had painted the walls with the powder-blue paint we used in the powder room upstairs; it looks good with the thick rose-colored carpet.

Today I was out at Mom's place in Deep Cove, updating the estate workbook with the accumulated bills and bank statements of the past couple of months. She was still in the throes of a deep cough following a weeks-long case of cold and bronchitis--uncharacteristic for her, who is so health-conscious. She treated me to lunch at Honey's Donuts in the Cove, a handful of mismatched tables run by a clutch of Latinas who make excellent donuts and serve very good food. I had the special: tuna-melt on their homemade bread and a cup of split-pea soup. Mom and I lapsed into deep conversation as the place emptied of customers and an elderly waitress chased a 3-year-old boy around the room. Outside the air was bright and wet and quiet.

Next up: teatime again. Reading. Kimmie has just got home, and gone out again to Michael's, the craft store, to buy heart-shaped cake pans for the celebratory cake she's planning for her sister Susie's 50th wedding anniversary. Later Trevor will be by to help move the sewing machine and serger down from Robin's room to the newly cleared sewing-room.

My book? Wading through caramel.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

when the lightning struck

Afternoon reading: Rubicon, Hillel the Elder.

Morning notes: Rubicon, Hillel the Elder.

I woke this morning to the sound of rain pounding leaves and pavement. Got up in the near-solstitial brightness and made the coffee while Kimmie loitered awhile longer in bed. Then down here to key more notes, feeling a bit bored with my research treadmill. Am I wasting my time?

I haven't talked about the origin of this project for awhile. As I've said before, its roots extend far back, at least to the late 1970s. But if I had to pick a moment when this specific project was born, when the impetus first rose in me to create something, and that specific something turned out to be this book, I would say it happened in the summer of 1994 while I was attending Vajradhatu Seminary in the Colorado Rockies.

Seminary was an 11-week intensive program of meditation, study, and work for Vajrayana Buddhist students of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche and his successors. Living in tent cities 9,000 feet up amid the quick storms and sudden heat of the dry mountains, we alternated 2 weeks of meditation with 2 weeks of classroom study in tents built on wooden platforms. I could say a lot about this demanding and very rewarding program, but here I'll just say that it took up all of one's time, day after day, from emerging from the sleeping-bag at dawn to crawling back into it sometime after dark each night, but the program was punctuated by a couple of days off. One of those days I spent in the dining tent, glued to a book I couldn't stop reading: The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.

First published in 1982, the book persuaded me of 3 things: 1) that Jesus was in fact the (or a) rightful king of Israel in the line of King David; 2) that he did not die on the cross, but survived crucifixion and continued his dynasty by fathering children of his own; and 3) that his bloodline, aware of its own existence, survived into the following centuries, and became one of the strands in the mythological tradition of the Holy Grail.

I had been searching for some way of tapping into the creative wellspring of the Holy Grail since at least 1990 (in reality long before--probably since 1980, when I first read Campbell's Creative Mythology). Now, this book seemed to present a way of doing it. I agreed with the quote taken from Anthony Burgess among the reviews covering the first pages of the book: "I can only see this as a marvellous theme for a novel." Yes, I thought, it is.

I felt a creative fire fill me as I read, a kind of psychic magma that sought outlet. How would I tell this story? Where would I start? I thrilled as I speculated on these questions. The fact that I could give the book only a few hours on that day, before immersing myself in my Buddhist studies again, made it all the more precious and urgent. This story needs to be told, I thought. It needs to be narrated.

No doubt others would be narrating the same story. I understand that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code contains some of these ideas (I haven't read it). Be that as it may--I was willing to enter the sweepstakes, since I had such passion for the project, and do still. My life has been wrapped around these mythological ideas, so I'm not going to give up easily. I'll outlearn, outresearch, and outcreate them. I'll do what it takes to get my version of this story to its audience.

There were still many steps to go through before I could actually drop pen to page and start drafting a book out of this (that happened, as I've mentioned before, on 27 April 2002, also at a Buddhist center, while I was a temporary monk at Gampo Abbey). But the lightning struck first in the dining tent at Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in summer 1994.

Friday, June 10, 2005

interminable notes

Yesterday afternoon, the Christmas-morning-like treat of having a new book arrive. This one in a special mailer from a bookseller in Oregon: A History of Technology, volume 1 of 5, edited by Charles Singer, E. J. Holmyard, and A. R. Hall, a big, 828-page hardback printed in 1957. The "astronomical instruments" article in my Oxford Classical Dictionary had referenced this as a source for more reading. Not knowing how the volumes were divided up chronologically when I scanned the long list on abebooks.com, I took a guess that my period would be in volume 1.

No: volume 1 covers only up until 700 BC. (Imagine!) I need volume 2. (I ordered a copy of that later last night.)

A bit disappointed, since I had been impressed with the speed of its arrival, and had thought how fortunate that I got it just before I was about to draft chapter 17, when I'd need the material, I nonetheless followed my custom of opening it up to read at teatime: breaking in the new addition to my library.

I'm impressed with the book. Great care has gone into its making (evidently it was sponsored and financed by Imperial Chemical Industries as a philanthropic project). It's richly illustrated with original line-drawings, like a good-quality Victorian text. And, despite its humble claim to being only a "tentative first effort", it appears to be thorough (the whole 5-volume series must come in at around 4,000 pages).

I enjoyed reading it. It felt like the kind of book I would have liked to discover as a kid, in a library, or in someone's den somewhere, that I could just spend an hour or two perusing. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading chapter 1, "Skill as a Human Possession" by Kenneth P. Oakley, which he starts off by discussing animals' use of tools (even insects use them).

Then: Rubicon and Hillel the Elder.

Morning notes: Rubicon, Hillel the Elder, and Alexander the Great.

Then, took up cudgels again for chapter 17. Yesterday I dipped back into chapter 15-16 to add some material near the beginning, which I hope will clarify and deepen Alexander's motivation. Even though I was lengthening an already long chapter, it felt good to be writing actual prose again, instead of these interminable notes. My notes document for chapter 17 is now 32 pages long--including a large section of extracts from research books--and still growing, since I haven't solved all my problems yet. I don't have my full starting lineup.

But I'm getting close. First I attacked the question of why Sosigenes has been avoiding his royal patrons. Without having to dig too deep, I felt I arrived at reasons I could live with.

Next: what's he working on? This question had me returning fretfully, again, to a few astronomy notes. By the end of my session I felt I was close. I can't afford to burrow too much deeper into this topic. Some interesting questions back then were whether the Earth rotates on its axis, and whether the Earth revolves around the sun...

Even before noon I felt tired and a bit fed up with it. I opened up my draft of chapter 15-16 and scanned through it, expecting the worst, but actually quite enjoyed it. Say, I thought, this isn't bad. It's not dry, academic yak--it's drama. It works.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Reading yesterday afternoon: Rubicon.

Morning notes: Rubicon, Alexander the Great.

Yesterday I went through a mini-cycle of depression and elation. In the morning I looked in at a writer's blog by Lee Goldberg, a published writer of series novels such as Monk and Diagnosis: Murder. The blog deals partly with issues such as (the pitfalls of) self-publication, and generally has a "commercial" feel to it. But even though he's a good head and says good things, I get put off by material on the publication and marketing aspects of writing. I'm not there yet, for one thing. For another, it starts making me think about odds.

In general, I don't believe in odds. If you believe in odds, you're finished, because in writing the odds are always against you. Sometimes massively so. You should never ask, "What are my chances?" Because the answer is: approximately zero. Your best mental strategy is: "I'm going to do this anyway, whether I get published or not." You need to be driven.

I've already done the impossible. When Warren and I created The Odyssey, we set out to launch a dramatic TV series without leaving our hometown of Vancouver. Theoretically, this can't be done, but we did it anyway. We didn't believe in odds. Other writers have said things to me like, "You were bone lucky." Maybe. But I don't really believe in luck. I believe in destiny.

Usually. But when I read about the vast numbers of writers shoving heaps of material at a seemingly shrinking number of potential buyers, I sometimes blanch. How to get heard above the noise? I myself have shoved material at agents (and have even had a couple of agents), and had the great majority of them brush me off, sometimes with comments that suggested that my work was not that good. (Well, I did ask for it. Although I usually think: "Oh yeah? Let's take a look at the stuff you think is ok, buddy...")

C'est la vie. I take heart again in the words of Robert McKee. This is from his book, Story:

By the 1990s script development in Hollywood climbed to over $500 million per annum, three quarters of which is paid to writers for options and rewrites on films that will never be made. Despite a half-billion dollars and the exhaustive efforts of development personnel, Hollywood cannot find better material than it produces. The hard-to-believe truth is that what we see on the screen each year is a reasonable reflection of the best writing of the last few years....

With rare exceptions, unrecognized genius is a myth.... For writers who can tell a quality story, it's a seller's market--always has been, always will be.

This to me has the ring of truth. The best teachers and mentors, including McKee (and Lee Goldberg), tell you to put your effort into quality. That's your best marketing strategy, and it's the one I have opted for.

Yesterday, the mere reminder of the existence of the publishing business, and of all my fellow writers wriggling like sperm toward the egg of a sale, depressed me. But as the day wore on, I got better. When I went out after teatime to pick up 2 liters of 1% milk at Safeway (along with a loaf of bread and, on impulse, a bag of Miss Vickie's regular-flavor potato chips), and walked from the store to the damp parking-lot, I felt confident. I felt good. My book will have power. I felt a kind of energy running from the earth into me. I was not worried at all.

Years ago I read about the great sailing-ships of yore. They used to have a canvas they would put up behind the steersman so that he couldn't look behind him. Evidently the steersmen, when they could look behind them, would sometimes see waves looming over the ship, and flee their post in panic. With the canvas up, no problem.

My "canvas" consists of sticking to my knitting, and not paying attention to material on the publication business. Not until it's time.


Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Cool and rainy. The greenery outside is wet and lush. The sky is a wet white overcast, tinged with India ink.

Morning notes: Rubicon, Hillel the Elder, Alexander the Great.

Back to notes on chapter 17. I picked up where I left off yesterday (took a bit of effort to remember): I was checking my notes from Shaye Cohen's From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. He gives a brief and excellent account of the evolution of Jewish beliefs about evil and redemption in the period I'm writing about. They grappled with the question of how God could permit evil in the world, and tried to explain his relationship to it. The ancient tribe we call the Israelites accepted the idea that God would punish not only evildoers, but their whole families for generations. Such was the sense of belonging that they had: before you were an individual, you were a member of a tribe, clan, family.

But as time went on, individualism developed. Ezekiel, early 6th century BC, said that each person receives an individual reward or punishment from God, and that a sinner can repair his relationship to God through repentance. Also, people became less able to accept that God rewarded or punished people within their lifetimes, since so many innocents seemed to suffer and die, while so many guilty prospered. So the idea developed of reward and punishment in an afterlife.

Evil is a central topic for me and for my work. What is my own stance toward it? I'm not sure. I wish to avoid perpetrating evil. As a Buddhist, I accepted the doctrine of karma, that the consequences of our motivated actions return to us eventually, in this life or another. In his book Aion Jung argues forcefully that Western man has not taken adequate account of evil as an active force in our psychology, having been sedated by the doctrine of evil as a privatio boni--the mere absence of good. In his words:

The doctrine of the privatio boni is in a sense responsible for a too optimistic conception of the evil in human nature and a too pessimistic view of the human soul. To offset this, early Christianity balanced Christ against an Antichrist. Only with Christ did a devil enter the world as a real counterpart of God.

If you reflect on that final sentence, the implications are large indeed. I'm not saying I know what they are--who does? But it's of keen interest to me, and if sentences were radioactive fuel-rods, this one is in my power-plant.

Maybe I'm tipping my hand too much about the dragons developing in the egg of my work.

But if I can think about these things, then so can my characters. We might not think actively about such issues, but everyone has an attitude to evil: what is it? where does it come from? what should we do about it? how do our own actions measure up on the evil scale?

Socrates said that no man knowingly does evil. Is that true? Certainly, some men knowingly do things that aren't nice...

It's as though I need to collect my own thoughts in order to find those that are proper to my characters. I've chosen my characters because I think they're important for our current age. Their problems are still our problems.

So I gathered notes from Cohen's book, compressing them further to look at them in point form. My character, Alexander, has had evil stuffed in his face, so to speak. How does he react? Sometimes the writer's freedom seems oppressive.

I have some ideas. But notice how many days can go by as I wrestle with just one character topic.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Cool whitish overcast has returned after our one-day blip of sun. Rain falls in sporadic handfuls of drops.

Morning notes: Hillel the Elder, Rubicon.

Then: on with notes for chapter 17. Yesterday I wrote 1,600 words of notes. Today 1,100. At times this stage of the writing process, preparing for a chapter, feels like my least favorite. It's a bit like feeling along a high concrete wall, looking for any kind of a crack or hidden door or suggestion of a way through. Feel here, try there. Nope. Keep looking.

It's not quite like that, of course. Ideas burble up, I answer my questions with plausible suggestions. How do I know when I've hit it? Sometimes there is a visceral spark--a feeling of interest in something I've just thought of. I had that a couple of days ago when I thought about the assistant to Sosigenes the astronomer: a new character whose traits were already being formed by the scene itself. Sometimes these are false alarms.

There seemed to be many such when Warren and I were doing The Odyssey. I remember sitting in this very office in my basement, the two of us thinking, often halfheartedly, of ideas to deal with a problem in front of us. One of us would get an idea and perk up--actually lifting his head, like a dog that's just heard something outside. We'd look at the idea, try to like it, but then usually would see why it didn't work or didn't really serve our purpose, or that it was really just a variation of an idea that we'd already rejected. The new idea was thrown on the scrapheap with the rest. Heads back down, moping through our day.

High-quality ideas usually come from digging. They are a byproduct of thinking, out-and-out cogitation. Maybe that's why I use the interrogation form for my notes. Questions force you to provide answers to specific things. This requires either thinking, or research, or both. Some questions have no clear answer, but I ask them anyway. Here's a paragraph from today's notes:

But the issue of numbers racing off the end of the scale, beyond what is countable in reality, suggests that the mindscape is fundamentally different from the physical cosmos. Plato's realm of the Ideas?

A question like this draws the mind (my mind anyway) up short. That can be a productive place.

Looking at a paragraph like that, you might wonder, "What the hell has that got to do with making a story?"

Good question. Maybe nothing--it's just the way my mind works. Theme is important to me--very important. Every story is saying something, asserting something, and every scene within it too. As soon as a writer has chosen a setting and characters and a situation, the zone of the theme has been marked out. These things have attracted the writer because of the theme with which they are pregnant. In a certain sense, a story is the delivery, maternity-style, of the theme, which is the baby born at the end.

I like ideas, so I create characters to whom ideas are important as well. My characters think; they reflect on their experience. So they need a vocabulary of ideas, and so does my story.

So a question about Plato's Ideas is, for me, not out of place. I often include thematic, philosophical, and spiritual material in my story notes. If nothing else, they energize and excite me. They can help me decide on an attitude for a character. Today, finding that Sosigenes was not yielding, I turned back to Alexander. With a sinking feeling, and yet also with hope, I returned to the recent trauma in his life, and tried to walk through in slow motion what he might be thinking and feeling afterward. What attitude would he take? How would he feel about his religion in the wake of disaster?

It's spadework. It's digging. What specific thoughts would he have? How would he explain his situation to himself? Where would he grope for answers? Thinking of these things is work (try it!). That's why I've resisted and procrastinated.

But some ideas started coming, like groundwater oozing up from the hole. He feels guilt--but what has he done wrong? He's been a bad boy, in some sense. His thirst for knowledge has made him impious--God has punished him. And yet--

And so on.

Had to knock off early to get to an appointment with a notary public to finalize my application for compensation from Shell Oil for the faulty polybutylene plumbing installed in our house.


Monday, June 06, 2005

creating characters and other things

Morning notes: Origins of Scientific Thought, Rubicon, From Eden to Exile, and Alexander the Great. Progress is slow when I'm keying so many works at once, but on the other hand, I get tired of keying one book, and am energized by switching to another. Same way I read.

On to the main course. I opened "17 - Notes" and jumped in keying, grabbing some thoughts that I'd had over the weekend. I just kept going, asking myself questions, then guessing answers. I started:

It's feeling like Alexander, inspired by The Sand-Reckoner, is intrigued by large numbers, and perhaps number theory generally. His young mind races after the ancient questions: how high do numbers go? Is there an end? Where? And if not, what does that mean?

Maybe he built his abacus based on the sand-reckoner, so that it could accommodate large numbers. Maybe has a separate little "register" that tells whether the numbers are of the first order, second order, etc., up to numbers of the "first period." (Does Alexander's abacus fall out--and Sos becomes curious about it?)

And so on. I suppose it's like whacking a flint with iron, generating sparks. The little individual ideas are the sparks. The research is the tinder.

The right ideas can arrive only when the mind is suitably prepared. I think it was Rodolfo Lanciani who said that even genius proceeds incrementally, and not by leaps. The fact is, even straightforward logical thinking leads one to unexpected places.

One of my favorite writing texts is Linda Seger's Creating Unforgettable Characters. I got my copy in 1991, when Warren and I were hard at work on The Odyssey. She boils character creation down to an orderly 6-step process:

1. Through observation and experience, you begin to form an idea of a character.

2. The first broad strokes begin to define the character.

3. You define the character's consistency, so the character makes sense.

4. Adding quirks, the illogical, the paradoxical, makes the character fascinating and compelling.

5. The qualities of emotions, values, and attitudes deepen the character.

6. Adding details makes the character unique and special.

I don't do this for every character, by any means--not even for all the main characters (although I probably should!). But I did do this for Herod, a character I didn't feel I knew at all when I was plotting my story. Here is a selection of notes from the Herod worksheet I made in October 2002:

Character core:
- tiger: a man of power, beauty, prowess, and ambition

- has known wealth and influence all his life: educated in Greek style; knows and appreciates Hellenic culture

- brought into the inner workings of politics, war, and statecraft by his father

- excellent athlete, fighter, and hunter: spends time training, working out, getting coached

- speaks and writes Aramaic, Greek, some Hebrew, some Latin

- attracts women easily and generally has his way with them: promiscuous but emotionally detached: capable of overwhelming charm

- has sharp wit and "monstrous" appetite

- when a tiger speaks, everyone listens; but he doesn't return the favor: self-centered

The Paradox:
- incisive, authoritarian beefcake

- has keen mathematical aptitude: relates to architecture

- bursts of warmhearted kindness for children, especially not his own

- maybe busies himself sometimes with menial tasks, makes a show of service

- inwardly self-critical, even self-chastising: may even see himself as a failure

- hypochondria!

Values, Attitudes, Emotions:
- he is the hunter; maybe feckless and hedonistic until he gets his "prey" in sight, then he stalks it one-pointedly

- believes strongly in Judaism, even if he doesn't practice it fully

- Hellenic in outlook: feels the Jews are bumpkins in many ways, but hold the divine Law...how to merge Law and civilization?

- makes "to do" lists?

- excellent grooming: hair, beard, clothes; maybe a necklace of "trophies"--rings etc. of women he's made love to--conquests

- doesn't like water; can't swim

- punctual, and angry with those who are not...

Had to fish those notes out of my old 3-ring project binder, the one I started back at Gampo Abbey. I haven't made use of all those notes, because Herod has also grown situationally as I have written; I kind of "become" Herod, take on an attitude as I write. But when I had finished them I felt that I was in the presence of a definite character.

Today a little book arrived in the mail: Hillel the Elder by Nahum Glatzer. It's a slim wee little volume. As always, I'll start reading it today, regardless of all the other things I've got on the go. Have to take a peek.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

history and storytelling

Slept fairly well after collapsing very fatigued last night. Soon a heavy rain set in.

This morning, keyed notes from Rubicon and the other book I bought at the same time, From Eden to Exile by archaeologist David Rohl.

I'm delighted with Rubicon because it deals specifically with my period (the Roman civil war), and it's addressing many questions that I've had for a long time but have not been able to find answers to as yet. Tom Holland, the high-achieving author ("awarded the top degree at Cambridge University"), is presenting a fast-moving history of the period leading up to the civil war (I'm on page 59 of 378). He's identified certain turning-points in that buildup and connected them in a causal way that strikes me as insightful and persuasive.

Often history is presented in a this-happened-then-this-happened-then-this-happened way that does not give a feeling of force and dynamism to the events. But Holland's approach is more like: this-happened-causing-this-to-happen-causing-this-to-happen-causing-this-to-happen. This is storytelling. We are drawn into a story by a strong flow of causation, like a powerful river current. The writer forces us to accept the events because they are causally connected, and we all accept causality at a visceral level. He refers to it as "narrative history". He says in his preface, "Following a lengthy spell in the doghouse, narrative history is now squarely back in fashion". Good.

I myself have put a lot of effort--years' worth--into structuring the events of my story, which is also a (fictitious) history, that must take account of, and account for, actual historical events. Right from the beginning, in my opinion, a story should be a runaway train. The readers, finding themselves aboard, can't get off.

I checked some search engines for the visibility of my blog. Which engines will display this site when you key "Paul Vitols" in the search window? The results:

AltaVista: yes, position 4 in the list of hits
Answers.com: no
Excite: yes, 13
Google: no
HotBot: no
Lycos: no
MSN Search: no
Netscape: no
Overture: yes, 9
Use.com: no
Yahoo: yes, 5

The winner: AltaVista, who ranked my blog in position 4 of the list of hits for a search of my name. They're clearly making use of the metatags I put in, as are Yahoo, Overture, and Excite.

Now: a 2nd cup of tea, and more Rubicon.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

concert at Vantech

Last night, while Kimmie and I were watching a DVD of the Spielberg-Hanks WW2 series Band of Brothers, the phone rang. Kimmie got it: it was her 12-year-old niece Nellie inviting us to a musical performance today at Vantech in East Vancouver. Kimmie thanked her profusely for calling, and agreed to come.

Kimmie had never met Nellie, nor indeed heard of her, before 3 February this year, when her older brother Freddie, dying of cancer in the palliative care ward of Lions Gate Hospital, told their sister Joanne that Freddie had, besides his wife and grown daughter, a second, secret family in East Vancouver. A former art student of his, Laura, lived there with their daughter Nellie (named after Freddie and Kimmie's mother). They'd had a relationship for 23 years.

The news sent shockwaves through the immediate family just before Freddie died on Valentine's Day. Joanne, Kimmie's closest sister, older by 4 years, at first embraced the new family members, but then, in the emotional maelstrom surrounding Freddie's death (and his last-minute revision of his will), exploded in fury at other family members and swore never to return to North Vancouver. Neither Freddie's widow, nor his legit daughter, nor his other sisters, wants anything to do with this sudden new addition. Kimmie and I, though, have remained friendly. Indeed I, writer and emotional nontraditionalist that I am, have enjoyed the whole thing.

We've visited them a couple of times at the co-op where they live on the East Side. But it's been two months, so it was a surprise to hear from Nellie last night. Today, Kimmie and I duly made our way over town to Vancouver Technical School on East Broadway to hear the concert.

Wan sunlight was trying to penetrate the masses of spring cloud; the air was still cool. Part of the pleasure was visiting the high school itself, opened in 1921, which neither of us had been inside before. I made some notes in the prose sketchbook I took with me:

Massive, with mullioned windows and a heavy, waxy, honey-colored oak door. The auditorium has pink walls, even in the dimness, with lights pointing up high on the walls, which are covered with huge sidewalk-art murals: a bodacious black chick with massive hair, honkin' breasts straining at her clinging striped shirt, and 10-inch rainbow-striped platform sandals. The panel next to that: some kind of Walter Raleigh rabbit, bubblegum-colored hat and ruff, and lower half giving out to curvilinear graffiti-style writing. Reverberant with kids like a public pool. Seats are curved pale plywood, and there is a balcony, also covered with sidewalk mural like an overpass. Little Asian girls in white T-shirts hustle past. Daylight bounces in from painted cinderblock through orange exit doors propped open. Louder: anticipation.

In short: the auditorium had a lot of personality. It's a vocational school, strongly ethnic, so there were many Asians and a few blacks, with some whites stirred into the mix. Nellie stopped by before the show and was delighted to see we'd come: long dark hair, pale white skin, dark observant eyes, excellent teeth. Her mother Laura joined us.

The concert was the year-end culmination of a program launched by the Sarah McLachlan Foundation to provide musical instruction to kids in the inner city, and indeed Sarah was there herself, sitting a couple of rows down from us among the other program brass. An unpretentious pop star in her dark singlet, long skirt, and flip-flops, she handed out bouquets and plaques on stage to award-winning kids before the show. (At the very top of the show there was a stirring rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" belted out by a tiny Asian girl in white T-shirt and black tights, backed by other tiny kid musicians.) The first girl on stage to accept seemed almost overcome by the wild applause and being embraced by Sarah.

After prolonged opening ceremonies the show launched, and I really enjoyed it. Nellie was among the opening percussion acts, an intermediate group of about 9 kids, where she played triangle and cowbell, then a smaller mixed group of 4, where she played a Yoruba drum of some kind. Their spokesman was a cool teenager who clearly was deeply into percussion and who took care to pronounce Cuba "Cooba" and to make sure we knew what the time signature of each percussion piece was. They put down very listenable grooves, nice and audible; I could have drifted into trance if they'd played longer.

After them, pianos and guitars, mixing things up admirably with selections like the theme from The Simpsons (a surprisingly complex and challenging piece when you just listen to it), "Little Prelude in D Minor", the Mission: Impossible theme, and "Stairway to Heaven". All with riotous applause and hoots of energy from the darkened audience.

At intermission, 2 hours later, we decided to go. I peeled the back of my T-shirt from my plywood chair and we headed into the sunshine, after congratulating Nellie on her good work.

"I'll have them over to dinner," said Kimmie. "Sometime after Susie and Bill's anniversary."